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Turning down the music

Posted: April 6th, 2018 | Arts & Entertainment, News, Top Story | No Comments

By Sara Butler | Editor

Normal Heights venue halts concerts, shifts focus to community events

Lestat’s West — a local music venue that has been operating for over a decade — announced that it will no longer host live concerts. John Husler, co-owner of its parent company Lestat’s Coffee House, confirmed the news to Uptown News on April 4.

Husler described the situation as “complicated.” Rumors of Lestat’s West’s closure began to swirl in early March. However, though the concerts are ending, the venue itself is not closing. It will continue to operate without live music, shifting its focus to community-centric events.

Molly Jenson (center) performing with local musicians at “The Last Show Probably, Maybe” event at Lestat’s West on March 28. (Photo by Chuck Lapinsky)

Lestat’s West is based in Normal Heights, located at 3343 Adams Ave. next to Lestat’s Coffee House. Lestat’s Coffee House — a 24-hour cafe which has been open since 1997 — also has locations on Park Boulevard and University Avenue, which opened in 2010 and 2016, respectively. Husler and his partner Jamie Jerkowski run all three mom and pop shops.

Out of the three businesses, Lestat’s on Adams is the only location that had an accompanying live music facility. Though Lestat’s West has been open for approximately 10 years, the cafe started hosting concerts 20 years ago inside of the coffee shop next door.

Husler said the main reason behind decision to end the live music was that the expenses — including labor costs, music and cabaret licenses — became too high to maintain the operation. He noted that the venue cost about $50,000 more than it made.

“We’re stuck with all of the expenses of running the theater in an environment where people don’t want to pay for music,” he said. “Millennials get their music for free.”

Husler conducted a two-year study to see if the venue could cut costs and sustain itself. He found that his two other locations were growing faster and able to reinvest at a more rapid rate than the Normal Heights cafe, which was forced to burden the concert expenses.

Lestat’s West performers with Louis Brazier (center), the venue’s former booking manager and soundman (Photo by Dan Chusid)

“If [live music] still brought in customers, it would have value,” he continued. “But the problem is that it’s really hard to justify its advertising when you’re only having shows with two to six people [performing] in them.”

A social media post from Lestat’s West’s Facebook account, posted by an employee on March 5, hinted the news and began community speculation about the venue’s closure.

“This is it folks, come out and support the venue. Lestat’s West Music Venue [is] closing at the end of March,” the post read, which attached a photo of a written statement about the importance of supporting small venues.

Though the Facebook post has not been removed, it has been edited since its original upload. (View the full post at bit.ly/2q4SQ1l.)

On March 23, the Facebook page — which often posts promotions for upcoming shows — added an event coined “The Last Show Probably, Maybe.” The concert was organized by Molly Jenson, a local musician who got her start at the venue in 2005 and continued to perform there throughout the years.

“It just seemed like all the San Diego musicians I knew were playing at Lestat’s, so it was the first place I thought to go when I started playing shows,” Molly Jenson said.

Jenson reached out to other musicians who had found a second home on the stage and invited them to participate in the event. Though some were out of town or already had different shows booked, Jenson said that every person she contacted responded.

(Photo courtesy of John Hancock)

Held on March 28 at 8–11 p.m., the show featured dozens of musicians, including Gregory Page, Jeff Berkley, Veronica May, Saba, Get Back Loretta, Evan Bethany, Josh Hall, Dallas McLaughlin, Alex Woodard, Annie Bethancourt, Nena Anderson, Derren Raser and Jenson herself.

“As soon as I heard the venue might close, my first thought was that we needed to have one more big night where all the old ‘family’ got together to play some songs,” she said. “It was a no-brainer.

“I honestly had no idea if anyone would be there or if it would be packed,” she continued. “We only had a week to promote the show, but the room was full and it ended up being a really special night.”

Each performer played a couple songs, and many offered an on-stage tribute to Louis [Lou] Brazier in the form of short speeches or dedicated numbers. Brazier, a long-time Normal Heights resident, was the booking manager and soundman of Lestat’s West. Tickets for the event cost $10 and all proceeds were given to Brazier.

Lestat’s West has hosted live concerts in Normal Heights for over 10 years. (Photo by Chuck Lapinsky)

“It was so great to see so many old friends and to have a chance to show Lou how much we love him,” Jenson said. “I know Lestat’s [West] is closing [live music] but Lestat’s isn’t Lestat’s without Lou.”

Prior to Brazier hiring, Husler handled all of the concerts. Once the decision to end live music was confirmed, Husler said that he offered a job at Lestat’s Coffee House to Brazier, as well as another employee who worked at the venue, but they both declined.

“I have to be fiscally responsible to all of the people that this place employs and all the people who enjoy coming to this place,” he continued. “And if the theater continues at that rate, it will bleed that dry. At a certain point I have to say, ‘This has to end.’”

Husler said he is committed to rebuilding the venue with free and low-cost community, culture-oriented events that bring in a higher attendance. The open mics, comedy nights, poetry nights, book club and writers’ group previously hosted will continue. These events are all run and advertised by independent organizations.

Husler also plans to add other events to the roster that have been suggested by millennials, such as potential game nights. Additionally, he is open to the idea of renting out the space to outside groups.

“I still think music is important, but the focus of this room [that houses Lestat’s West] has lost its audience, and without an audience you’re not doing any good for anybody,” Husler said.

—Reach Sara Butler at sara@sdcnn.com.

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